Former Montana Governor Steve Bullock during a meeting in Billings, Montana. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

Nearly 46 million Americans live in rural areas, all of which face their own unique challenges in containing, handling, and pushing through the Covid-19 pandemic. No two communities are the same, and that’s the greatness of rural America – our communities thrive on their distinctive nature and know-how. That same greatness makes the Covid challenge even tougher to control, and it has brought to light the dire need to expand opportunities for those 46 million rural Americans.  

When President Biden took office, he committed to delivering for the American people real, sustainable help – no gimmicks, no fancy accounting. That’s exactly what we’re getting with the president’s American Rescue Plan. Promises were made, and promises were kept.

While $1,400 relief checks and the surge in vaccines have rightly dominated the headlines — and I certainly hope you’ve gotten both already! — what you may not have heard is the American Rescue Plan also represents one of the biggest investments in rural America in our nation’s history. It will reduce hunger across the country, strengthen the food supply chain, and aid underserved, socially disadvantaged farmers.

With millions of school-aged children learning from home, many families were forced to choose between paying their bills and putting food on the table. That’s why the American Rescue Plan provides increased access to the Pandemic EBT program, allowing families to purchase healthy food more easily. It also provides over $880 million for expanded access to many American grown fruits and vegetables for moms and babies through the special WIC program.

Accessing healthy food hasn't always been easy for many American families. The beginning of the Covid pandemic proved severe flaws in the United States’ food supply chain. In Montana, we saw firsthand how the aftershock of Covid outbreaks among farmers, farmworkers, and factory workers was a global burden to families putting food on the table. To combat that problem, President Biden’s American Rescue Plan provides $3.6 billion to the United States Department of Agriculture to purchase and distribute American-grown food. The USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program has delivered over 145 million boxes of fresh produce, milk, dairy, and cooked meats to families in need. Moreover, it appropriates over $300 million for animal monitoring and testing to ensure our animal population's health and safety during this global crisis.  

While surging vaccine distribution and getting shots in arms will stop the spread of Covid and keep our families safe, we’ll need more than a vaccine to undo the damage and get our communities back on track. Small businesses have struggled. Schools closed to in-person learning, forcing students, parents, and teachers to adapt to remote learning. Local hospitals, health agencies, and health care professionals in rural communities have been on the front lines of this fight for more than a year, working to contain, treat and defeat this virus with far too limited resources. The American Rescue Plan takes those challenges head-on.

Every person from a small town knows that one of the keys to keeping rural areas thriving is continued access to quality health care. This legislation will deliver $8.5 billion to rural health care providers, including clinics, in-home, and hospice care, for costs associated with Covid and an additional $500 million to rural hospitals and local communities to expand access to vaccinations and food assistance. The Paycheck Protection Program, which has been a lifeline for small businesses, is extended through May and will receive an additional $7.25 billion in funding. The American Rescue Plan also provides $10 billion to expand rural broadband and $130 billion to help schools reopen safely. 

As the former Governor of Montana, I know that too often the concerns of rural communities can be overlooked by those in Washington. I also believe that you’re only as good as your word. During the campaign Joe Biden promised rural America, which has shouldered more than its fair share of the burden during this public health and economic crisis, that if he were elected, help would be on the way. Now, just weeks after he took office, President Biden has delivered. Help is finally here.

Steve Bullock is a co-chair of American Bridge 21st Century. Previously he served as Governor of Montana from 2013-2021.

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